Lessons from Lego®
If you speak to many engineers or architects about what inspired their career choice you will often find that Lego has a place deep in the origins of their journey. For some it was a convenient medium to express their creativity and for others, like me, it also played a major part in their childhood helping to forge lasting friendships and enduring memories.
I grew up in the 1980s during Lego’s golden years – long before its brand franchises and movie tie-ins – when imagination ruled supreme. Lego cities, castles, spaceships and, of course, Technic all appeared during this period providing a wealth of inspiration and hours of enjoyment. To the annoyance of my parents my bedroom floor was often strewn with countless bricks as I devoted days to the planning and building of my next creation. In fact, the brick-based system was so versatile that I was only limited by what I could imagine. Before adolescence lured me towards other less constructive pursuits I had designed and built hundreds of creations including towers, cranes, space ports, oil rigs, aircraft carriers, docks, submarines, trucks, tanks, racing cars, spaceships and recreated scenes from many of my favourite Spielberg and George Lucas movies.
As children, most of us took the ingenuity of Lego for granted and failed to appreciate that at the heart of this creative outlet was a simple but fundamental innovation. , Godtfred Christiansen realised that normal building bricks were very limited and so he developed the idea of using friction interlocking bricks and embodied this into his patent in 1958
“….building bricks or blocks adapted to be connected together by means of projections extending from the faces of the elements and arranged so as to engage protruding portions of an adjacent element when two such elements are assembled … thus providing for a vast variety of combinations of the bricks for making toy structures of many different kinds and shapes.”
Over the years Lego has continued to evolve and is now vastly more varied and complex than when the idea was patented in the 1950s, or during the golden years of the 1980s, however its patented brick-to-brick connection remains fundamental to its continued success. The product provides a masterclass in how the simultaneous balance of flexibility and standardisation can deliver almost unlimited creativity.
Whilst many toys have struggled to maintain relevance through the rise of the digital age, Lego has bucked the trend. Its financial results for 2021 show an increase in sales of 22% compared to 2020 – with a strong upwards trend since the early 2000s. However rather than going head-to-head with digital alternatives Lego has chosen to embrace the opportunities they present. As well as tie-ins with computer games like Minecraft, Gen-X Lego nostalgists (like me) may be unaware that it is now possible to pre-build any Lego model in a virtual digital environment. Using Lego Studio software, it is now possible to design, build and realistically render your Lego creation, drawing on a full library of available bricks. What’s more, the software will do a stability check to ensure your design is stable, and when finished you can even create your own instruction booklet. If you then decide to turn your design into a physical reality you can order the bricks you need online using BrickLink – a global Lego marketplace.
I couldn’t help but consider this as a conceptual template for the construction industry and, whilst it would be a gross simplification to suggest that the industry can be dumbed down to a single connection type, product or material, there is much to learn from and aspire to in the simplicity and usability of the Lego system of building and its digital platform.
In simplistic terms, the Lego software provides an effective Virtual Design and Construction (VDC) experience directly connected to the supply chain via a digital marketplace. It works perfectly, giving designers everything they need to know about their design ahead of making the commitment to build it in real life. Options can be explored, design variations and finishes visualised, construction sequences animated, brick quantity data reviewed, and virtual models shared with family and friends for feedback or collaboration.
The idea of VDC applied so neatly in the Lego Studio software is already being realised in the construction industry, and Robert Bird Group is leading the way. Real-world construction is usually orders of magnitude more complex than most Lego model builds, and so specialist Construction Engineering skills are required to develop safe, effective and efficient construction methodologies; taking onboard stakeholder requirements, working within supply chain constraints, applying value-adding innovations and integrating with permanent works designs. Communication throughout this process is key, and so VDC uses simple but effective visualisation tools to help stakeholders at all levels understand the risks and opportunities for any given design or construction solution. The launch of RBG’s Reveal Online (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=amjglcT9VRA) is one tool in the VDC toolkit – providing an immersive and interactive experience of construction, enhanced with BIM meta-data, accessible using only a web browser.
But, using the Lego example, VDC doesn’t have to stop there. As well as viewing traditional BIM meta-data, imagine having quantities, cost, time and carbon data available to explore and visualise interactively in a real-time design environment where data is flowing freely to make comparisons and enable informed decision making. This is the direction of travel for VDC which is now being realised through the increasing availability and interconnection of our data.
Of course, Lego’s marketplace works by virtue of the digital platform but more fundamentally because it has a fully defined library of available components. Lego has the advantage of having full control of the components in the library and their supply, however the key factor in this successful digital model is standardised componentisation. Lego allows designers to interchange components and explore creative ways to achieve design objectives all the while understanding that the components in the library are compatible, have a given specification and a known level of performance.
The construction industry is not like that. There is a bewildering number of products in the global marketplace, and whilst the industry is already very familiar with modular construction, most construction is still bespoke using traditional methods. A vast array of modular systems is available across the globe, mostly responding to and delivering within geographic markets or for niche remits. However, there is little commonality or compatibility, and Intellectual Property is usually tightly controlled preventing deliberate cross-pollination of ideas or systems. Whilst efforts have been made to digitise the supply chain for vertically integrated proprietary component systems (e.g. the now defunct Katerra’s Apollo Software), no digital platform currently exists that can facilitate real-time access to component libraries for true virtual design, manufacture and construction.
However, this could be about to change. Its early days but driven by top tier developers and contractors who want to do things better, a Lego-system approach may be coming to the industry enabled by a new generation of digital platforms. These platforms will ultimately facilitate virtual design and construction of multiple building systems, using libraries of new or existing components and digital tools for automating design, optimisation, modelling and fabrication. By working with industry partners and through the incremental region-by-region onboarding of the supply chain, such platforms have the potential to transform how the industry operates, moving closer to a digital componentised construction approach.
RBG sees this future and embraces it. We continue to push our digital capabilities into building design, construction engineering and VDC, leverage our data and that of our clients and partners to deliver a better outcome for our clients, society and the environment we live in.
So, whilst I have to accept my childhood ambition to recreate the Millennium Falcon will never scale to the real world, I do have one request for the future of the construction industry. Please, learn from Lego.